About chickens farmed for meat

Outdoor broiler chicken sitting on grass

Chickens farmed for meat are called broiler chickens. Photo © CIWF/Jake Spain

Back in 1950, chicken was such a treat that most British people ate less than a kilo in a whole year. Now, we eat more than 2 kg per month (25kg in a year on average).

Live fast, die young

Chickens will naturally live for 6 or more years. Under intensive farming methods, a meat chicken will live less than six weeks before slaughter.

Free-range chickens will usually be slaughtered at 8 weeks and organic at around 12 weeks.

There are a number of welfare issues for meat chickens.

Welfare issues

Good animal welfare depends on three components:

  • Physical well-being
  • Mental well-being
  • Natural living.

In intensive chicken farms all three of these are compromised by overcrowding in filthy conditions, barren environments, and rapid growth. Chickens also suffer injury and stress through rough handling during catching, transport and slaughter.

Around 70% of chickens raised for meat globally are raised in intensive industrial farming systems. This includes the majority of chickens in the UK, Europe and the US as well as rapidly increasing numbers in developing countries.

Intensively farmed chickens are bred to reach their slaughter weight in less than 6 weeks. This is half the time it would take traditionally. Their short lives are spent in overcrowded sheds with no access to the outside.

Inside the intensive chicken shed

In the chicken shed

Undercover inside a typical, intensive shed in the UK.

Broiler sheds are generally bare except for water and food points, with no natural light. There is litter on the floor to absorb droppings which is not usually cleared until the chickens are gathered for slaughter.

The air can become highly polluted with ammonia from the droppings. This can damage the chickens’ eyes and respiratory systems and can cause painful burns on their legs (called hock burns) and feet.

Chickens confined in these barren sheds are not able to adjust their environment to avoid heat, cold or dirt as they would in natural conditions.

It can get very hot inside the sheds, especially in summer. If the ventilation system fails, thousands of birds can die of heat stress.

Fast growth

Intensively reared chickens are selected for very fast growth rate. They spend much of their time lying down and many of them suffer from lameness. The rapid growth also puts a strain on their hearts and lungs. In the UK alone, millions of chickens die in their sheds from heart failure each year.

Lame chick

This footage shows potentially upsetting scenes of animal suffering.

Undercover footage of a lame chicken. Chickens bred for fast growth have a high rate of leg deformities because their bones struggle to grow quickly enough to keep up.

Overcrowding

Tens of thousands of birds can be housed in each shed. The 2007 EU Directive allows the equivalent of 19 birds per square metre. This means that each bird has less floor space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.

Broiler chickens in a shed

Broiler chickens in a crowded shed

Chickens in overcrowded sheds lack exercise, are disturbed or trodden on when they are resting, have less and less space to move as they grow larger and may find it more difficult to reach food and drink if they are lame. They are unable to forage as they would naturally. Crowding is also likely to lead to more air pollution, increased heat stress and foul litter.

Feed restriction of breeders

Some chickens are allowed to live until sexual maturity in order to breed. Their food intake is often severely restricted otherwise their fast growth would damage their health. These chickens can be stressed, frustrated and chronically hungry as a result.

Catching, transport and slaughter

Before transport to slaughter, broilers are usually deprived of food for many hours. Catching, crating and transport are stressful and can result in bruising and other injuries. Around 20 million chickens per year are already dead by the time they arrive at EU slaughterhouses.

At the slaughterhouse, chickens are typically hung by their feet on shackles whilst conscious, which is likely to be painful, particularly as leg problems are common. The birds are usually stunned by being dipped, head first, into an electrified water bath before their throats are cut. This stunning is sometimes ineffective: the struggling birds may raise their heads and miss the water, resulting in fully conscious birds having their throats cut.

There are more humane alternatives to intensive chicken farming.

Higher welfare chicken farming

The following systems offer significantly higher welfare for meat chickens.

Free-range and organic systems

Free-range and organic chickens have access to fresh air and green spaces. The environment can be improved by adding trees and shrubs for cover and shelter.

lone broiler ranging.jpg

Outdoor access gives chickens the opportunity to express natural behaviours

Standard free-range

In these systems, the chickens are given continuous access to an outdoor range during the daytime and sheds where they are housed at night. Free-range chickens grow more slowly than intensive chickens. They also live longer, at least 56 days. In the EU each chicken must have one square metre of outdoor space.

The benefits are a reduced growth rate and opportunities for natural behaviour such as pecking, scratching, foraging and exercise outdoors, as well as fresh air and daylight. Because they grow slower and have opportunities for exercise free-range chickens have better leg and heart health and a much higher quality of life.

Organic

In organic systems, chickens are also free-range. Organic chickens are slower growing, more traditional breeds and live typically for around 81 days. They grow at half the rate of intensive chickens. They have a larger space allowance outside (at least 2.5 square metres).

Free to range

Footage from a free-range chicken farm.

Higher welfare indoor

In these systems, such as Waitrose essential chicken range, chickens are kept indoors but with more space (around 12 to 14 birds per square metre). They have a richer environment: including natural light and straw bales to encourage natural behaviour like foraging and perching.

RSPCA Freedom Food birds grow significantly more slowly, living for up to two weeks longer than intensively farmed birds.


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